I heard my father’s WWII stories all my life. I knew he’d been stationed at Pearl Harbor a few years after its bombing. But I wouldn’t have known the details of his service, if it hadn’t been for two notebooks full of letters that sat on a shelf, in my parent’s home, for more than 50-years.
On his 81st birthday, he put them on my lap. I didn’t know what it meant. I went home that night and cried. I cried for all the times I didn’t give him time to talk, all the times I didn’t listen. And although my father told me I could do what I wanted with the letters; I could throw them away or burn them, those letters were the beginning of a journey that neither of us had intended to take. I was a baby boomer and he was aging. More importantly, he’d begun to have symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. My sweet, gentle father had slowly become depressed, angry and haunted by nightmares and flashbacks. And all I wanted to do was to help him. So I started asking questions – once a week – at a local diner.
Sometimes he had answers for me; often he did not. But we kept meeting, week after week, month after month. Slowly, a story was emerging. It was one I couldn’t fathom. My father hadn’t sat behind a desk during the war as he’d told me many times. My father was a top secret code breaker. He’d served on submarines and ships off of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He’d experienced a traumatic loss on one of these missions. It took nine years for the whole and true story to come to the surface.
I can’t help but think about how many veterans’ stories are sitting on someone’s shelf or kept locked deep inside the veteran him/herself. Boxes, scrapbooks, photo albums, that haven’t been cracked open in years. They hold a story waiting to be told. The veteran waits for someone to ask. What if each of us chose one person in our life and simply began asking questions? What if we opened those boxes and listened to the stories that tumbled out?
Veterans of all wars deserve our very best, and sometimes that’s as simple as chatting over breakfast once a week.
Listen to Interview about Karen's book on NPR's Weekend Edition.
Karen Fisher-Alaniz is the author of Breaking the Code – a Father’s Secret, a Daughter’s Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything (Sourcebooks, 2011). She can be contacted through her website at http://www.storymatters2.com.